Which Cables Are of Most Importance?

In a hi-end system, McIntosh, B&W, which cables will give me the most bang for the buck between IC's, speaker, power and HDMI? Which cables are most important and which are least important? Will concentrating my $$ in any one or two cables give me the most bang for the buck?
IC and Speaker are far more important than power and HDMI. The later two provide questionable benefit.
I have a Mcintosh/B&w system. In mine the ICs and speaker wire made a huge difference as I had cheap cables from my 90's system. I demoed a set of modest cables installing one at a time and could hear improvements each time which helped justify ordering a complete IC/speaker set. With the power cables I tried a cheap pair, heard a small improvement, so I did replaced all but is only a slight difference in my setup. I know nothing about HDMI but would try a cheaper upgrade and see what happens, if you notice any improvements try an even better one.
I feel that ALL cables are important - they can be as important in enabling your systems full potential, just as much as any component. Having said that, let me qualify that it will depend on how sensitive your equipment is – Mid-Fi gear won't showcase this.

Now, I would have agreed with 'Jaxwired' as of last year but my eyes (and ears) have been since fully opened, and to finally answer your question - always start with a solid foundation - excellent power cords and clean power.
All cable(s) are important. Your 1st replacement is the Power Cord.
Agree with Jgwilson, good quality and clean AC power is a fundamental requirement for good overall sound. Power cords do make a difference.The point is 'all' cables are important and have a sonic effect.
I recommend "source" cables first (digital cable, IC from CD player / TT) - next is speaker cables. However, you are only as good as your weakest link. My suggestion is to spend more at the source and then do speakers. Preamp to amp is next. There are so many good "budget" cables these days (Blue Jean, Morrow, and others) that you do not have to spend big bucks on cables. To me, these budget cables are so close to the big buck wires that unless you have super good ears, it will not make or break your sound quality / enjoyment. To me, it is more important to match the desired tonality (i.e copper for solid state, silver for tubes etc.....this can mitigate tonality issues like brightness or darkness in tonality). Another route is to buy "used" on this site. Thus you can try cables and not get hurt on the back end if you want to change or move up in quality.
as you see there is no agreement on which cable is the most important, there are too many variables in personal stereos to have a fair consensus for comparison.

try used cables and sell the ones you do not want and keep the ones you like
Tonearm cables are much more important than any other.
The smaller signal the better cables are needed.
The obvious has been stated all cables matter, from my experience the preamp to amp makes the biggest difference in my system.

The least noticeable has been speaker cables.
The interconnect between the source and preamp.
My interconnects from pre to amp are balanced AudioTechnica with Neutrik XLR plugs, so in this case the quality of wires is almost negligent.
My problem is two-fold. The local dealer wants to put comparable quality (high-end AQ) for all my cables which rapidly gets very expensive. Since my setup involves putting wires through walls and behind a fireplace, I need professional installation and can not readily compare different cables or do it myself. That was why I asked the question of which cables were most important and where I can get the most bang for the cable buck.
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If at all possible run channels through which new wires could be pulled. That way, as inevitably it will as new cables are discovered/designed to be far better, you can update them by having them pulled through the channels.

Is there any way to run the cabling under the floor vs. through the wall and behind the fireplace? That might save a lot of work/problems. It might also prove quite a bit less and provide a bit better sound if the cables are much shorter.

In answer to your question, no, concentrating your money on one or two cables will not ensure that you will end up with the best performance. It depends on the quality of the cables, period. Some extremely high priced cables are so-so in terms of performance while others which are considerably less are stellar.

It is entirely possible that one could buy an entire set of cables for the price of one or two very pricey pairs which would outperform the set with a mix of very pricey and less expensive cables. In short there is no guarantee that you will achieve the best results possible.

However, if you must choose and will not be able to later redo the project (i.e. if you can't run channels or go under the floor) then moving up the line on those cables you cannot replace at your liesure is a reasonable move.

Finally, if you have a rig set up now you can compare cables if your dealer will let you. Borrow a set of the AQ and of some others and do your own listening comparison. You also can obtain on loan cables from the Cable Company.

If this is a big deal/big ticket expense, which it seems to be, I would strongly recommend you slow down, do not let the dealer set the pace though you are wanting to support his business, and do your own due diligence on cables. You will not regret it. OTOH, if you are pushing a deadline then you simply have to make your choice and live with it.

Remember, this is a good problem, one of the sort that does not lead to suffering - unless you overspend badly! ;)
In the big picture, the umbilical cable is the maost important to a mammal. Whithout it you just do not even get the chance to exist.
So THAT cord is clearly the most important!
Feel free to stone me..
It appears you are already stoned.
"In the big picture, the umbilical cable is the maost important to a mammal."
Only in Red China! LOL!
I'll drink to that. Happy New Year to all !
Marakanetz, What's your point?
Everyone's system and ears are different. Here's my hierarchy...

Power Cables
Speaker Cables

Not much experience with HDMI, so no comments either way.

I've found the biggest difference maker in speaker cables is the length. I had to have 30 feet runs in a previous system due to layout. When I moved, I still had that length for 3 months or so (had higher priorities and I just wanted to relax and listen whenever I had the chance). I left the speakers where they were and cut the cables to 8 feet. Huge difference. And these were cables that were designed for long runs - Canare 4S11.

I've tried other speaker cables in the system since, and they made a difference, but very small. Not near the differences I've heard from interconnects and power cables.

Just reporting what I've observed.
My guess is that it would vary from system to system. I personally have noted the biggest differences with ic's and speaker cables. Power cables do make a difference but I note the improvement in the better ones in lowering the noise floor of the system not in any substantive way in the manner of a good ic or speaker cable. ICs and speaker cables have more impact on different parameters of the presentation although in many cases, most I would say, the differences can be quite subtle. YMMV. HDMI, no experience with them. I do agree with Elizabeth though, the umbilical is the most important.
The point of wire importance is always floating. In my rig the link between amp/preamp is less important than TT --> phonostage.
Power cords by far.
Power Cords by far.
i put a morrow map-3 ac cord [600 bucks with upgraded wattgates] on my 300 dollar emotiva preamp and it has transformed my system. the soundstage is extremely open and pleasing to my ears. i suspect i will be advised i should have just bought a 1000 dollar preamp of some flavor but so it goes in my world.
Article #3 from Cabling Your System on The Audio Beat speaks to this question.
Thanks for the link Jtimothya, an interesting read indeed. Always interesting to see such strong viewpoints on cables.
I've been playing with cables for long time. This comes from experience not from "I think, maybe, theoretically...
1 SC
2 PC
3 IC
For myself I have experienced the greatest amount of impact from powere cables, then speaker cables followed by analog interconnects. Bringing up the distant rear are all shapes and forms of digital cables.
Any information lost cannot be retrieved further downstream, no matter how good the cable (or other piece of gear) further downstream. Any distortion added to the signal cannot be corrected by a better cable (or other piece of gear) further downstream.
1. I/C
2. SC
3. PC
Agree with ( Frogman ). It used to be called the Humpty Dumpty affect, once the pieces are broken nothing can but it back together again, not even all the kings horses and all the kings men.
Frogman is right. What is lost, is lost. The point is that when you upgrade IC's you gain less then when you upgrade speaker cable or power cords. This can be clearly heard.
Differences among IC's are just smaller then in case of other cables.
While Frogman's statement is certainly true, the converse is also true. Any information that is lost or distortion that is added by a downstream component or cable cannot be corrected by anything further upstream!

IMO the lack of consensus in this thread confirms what Philjolet said early on: "There are too many variables in personal stereos to have a fair consensus for comparison."

Many technical factors could be cited in support of that position, including the dependency of many cable effects on the input and output impedances of the components that are being connected, balanced vs. unbalanced interconnections, ground loop susceptibility of the components, the rfi/emi environment, use of feedback in the components, power supply design, AC power characteristics, the lengths of the cables, etc., etc.

-- Al
The system is as good a it's weakest link. Spend lots of dough on components and use crappy wires ...
I under estimated PC's at the beginning and was not happy with the sound, was replacing other component but the real problem was still there , the PC. Lamp cord , or computer cord can ruin the whole picture.
I've played with shelves under CD player lately. My equipment sits on Finite Elemente audio rack, on Finite Elemente Ceraballs and Cerapucks (one of the best if not the best stuff when it comes to vibration control). I put additional shelf between the player and the rack. Actually I experimented with a couple of shelves made of playwood, wood, MDF, glass..... Again, changes in sound were significant from almost unbearable to much better sound. The best was glass shelf!! (8 mm thick) in my particular system. And the difference is bigger then changing interconnects!, even replacement of stock tube with a very good NOS tube in the amp didn't bring bigger change. A single glass shelf!
Not surprisingly, many responded with the power cords as the most important one. Very possible because most of the homes are far from the ITU-T compliance, one the main culprit having no or a very bad grounding.

In terms of best return on investment, I would suggest having, whenever possible, a dedicated 20A line and have the grounding checked. Then spend the money downstream, starting with the ICs (staying within your comfort zone of your budget, upgrading slowing till you don’t hear the improvement). In my particular case, after installing a dedicated line and improving the grounding, the difference between having a good power conditioner like the PS Audio PPP and without one is so minimal that I got rid of it; the overall performance on the system (using the same IC/SC) is very noticeable with the new AC line/improved grounding.

As for how much the allocation of the total budget should be I rely on the experience on fellow Goners. The systems section is very useful to checkout those with similar gear (say the same amp and/or the same speakers that you own) what type of IC/SC/etc they use in order to have a magnitude of the (extra) spending.
Just revisiting this thread. Almarg, you said:

****the converse is also true. Any information that is lost or distortion that is added by a downstream component or cable cannot be corrected by anything further upstream!****

Absolutely true. But the reasoning behind my comment, and it's suggestion that if a compromise must be made (budget-wise), it makes more sense to keep the signal as pure as possible, for as long as possible, by using the best possible IC. IOW, assuming that NONE of the cables in the system are total garbage (unlikely these days; thankfully), and barring any gross technical incompatibilities, it seems to make sense that the end result will be better if the speaker cables are asked to pass a signal that is less distorted by the IC (better IC), than to have a better (more revealing) speaker cable revealing the problems of a lesser quality IC.

I welcome your thoughts.
Hi Frogman,

The question is reminiscent of the age-old debate about "speakers first" vs. "source first." As many past threads have made clear, a reconciliation between the two opposing positions seems unachievable.

FWIW, I happen to be in the camp that believes that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, regardless of where in the chain that link may be located. In the case of speakers vs. source, I believe that in general the choice of speakers will make a greater difference in the character and quality of the sound that is heard than the source component, which I believe means in turn that the speakers are more likely than not to be the link that should be given the most focus, and the higher priority. I recognize that there is an opposing philosophy, with which I agree to disagree.

In the case of cables, the issue is further muddled by the dependence of many cable effects on the design characteristics of the components the cable is connecting, and the unpredictability that results in. And that dependence, in turn, is one reason (among others) for what IMO is a considerably lower degree of correlation between price and performance in the case of cables, in comparison with the degree of correlation that exists in the case of components and speakers. Which muddles the issue still further.

The bottom line, as I see it, is what I said in my previous post:
IMO the lack of consensus in this thread confirms what Philjolet said early on: "There are too many variables in personal stereos to have a fair consensus for comparison."

Many technical factors could be cited in support of that position, including the dependency of many cable effects on the input and output impedances of the components that are being connected, balanced vs. unbalanced interconnections, ground loop susceptibility of the components, the rfi/emi environment, use of feedback in the components, power supply design, AC power characteristics, the lengths of the cables, etc., etc.
The reasoning you stated in your last post, while perhaps appealing in the abstract, does not take into account this multitude of variables and dependencies, and also seems to make what I consider to be the incorrect presumption that there will be a high degree of correlation between cable performance in a given system and cable price.

IMO. I recognize that other opinions can and will differ.

Best regards,
-- Al
I have been blind testing cables with 5 other guys for over 30 years with a scoring system and truthfully there are less than 10 cable manufacturers that make a cable that evokes emotion. In my opinion the best thing you can do is just stay within one reputable cable manufacturer when replacing cables. If the manufacturer makes his cable in a garage than there will be no professional R&D afforded by that person so find a manufacturer that is real. Also remember cables are like car tires; if you use several different makes of tires on 1 car you will never really know how any one of those tires actually performs unless you try the same tire on each corner. In my opinion change all the cables and if you are not emotionally connected to the artist after the change than move on. After testing over 400 different brands I do not know of 1 cable you can change in a system will leaving other average cables in your system that will evoke an emotional experience.
System dependant. However, for me: 1. Power (by far), 2. Interconnect, 3. Speaker.
Great post, Al. I agree with your positions. I have always maintained that the speakers should be the highest priority in any system, and I agree with your comments on cables as well. I happen to agree with Robert Harley's suggestion that cables/interconnects should cost no more than 5% of a total system budget, no matter what that budget may be. IMO, all other parts of the system are far more important.
Look at cables as the artery to the system; no matter how strong you are or how smart you are without the blood pumping you are dead. The problem is there are very few, possibly less than 10 cables manufacturers that can actually evoke emotion into a system and I can totally understand why some people would believe that cables are only worth 5% of your investment into a system. A really great cable can put you in the recording studio in front of the artist and create a total emotional experience; how do you put a price on that? A great cable is an experience not just another listening session!
I agree with Musicxyz, The Crimson R.M. Music Link cables are one of those very rare cables that brings emotion into a system.
Musicxyz, you know what you're talking about. You and your friends have a lot of experience and it shows. Most people on Audiogon hop around from one cable company to another trying to solve their audio problems -- to no avail. There is always something missing -- or too much of something they don't like. A lot of the latter comes from dirty AC.

Most people have little conception of the "good -- better -- best" continuum because they haven't got enough experience. Maybe the handful of people who go to shows have a chance to audition a lot of different cables and can draw conclusions. And then there are the dedicated people like you and your friends who have years of personal experience. But for those without a deep data base of experience the best they can do is "this cable is better than that cable".

It is very difficult to get enough experience to get a really accurate picture of cables and sound parameters. You need to devote a lot of time and money to it. If you are fortunate enough to live where you can audition using people like The Cable Company to help out, then you can make headway. But for people like me who live overseas, getting enough experience is a daunting project. You have to buy and try. And sell off and buy and try again. This has taken me years.

Sound stage is one of many areas talked about by manufacturers and audiophiles. There are many shadings and gradations of what is called 3-D or holographic sound. I don't believe many people outside the audio industry have experienced enough of these gradations to be able to have an informed opinion.

Over the years I have done a lot of hopping around from one cable company to another. I have found only a few companies that get close to that emotional connection you talk about. But even the best lack one facet or another, IMHO. So I started experimenting with what I found to be the best cables -- using cables in series and in parallel. After a lot of trial and error I found what works for me. And now I would never be able to go back to using single cables. There is just no comparison. I realize this may be too expensive a route for most people to follow.

I use ASI Liveline, Bybee and Synergistic Research together in various combinations and permutations combined with various Bybee "tweaks". The results are stunning. The "aliveness" really came into my system once I started incorporating ASI Liveline cables into the mix.

Thanks for the information about HiDiamond cables. I have never heard of them before. I will look them up.
Well said Musicxyz, I totally agree.
Another vote for power cords, most important. Speaker cables and interconnects tied for second/third place.
No one has addressed the importance of a quality HDMI cable in a hi-end home theater. Should I assume it's of lesser importance and there are very little differences between HDMI cables?
huge difference in HDMI cables, especially over the generic cables supplied with components
So this if the cable that beats the Teo? Wow another copper cable. Kool brilliant.

Diamond Reference Black Gold Interconnect
Type: Analog interconnect
External Jacket/O.D.(mm.): PVC/16 
Operating Temperature: (- 30° + 80° C) 
Number Of Conductors: 4 
Type Conductors: Graphite/Copper 
Conductors ( Qty/mm.): 160 x 0.10 
Insulation Type/O.D.(mm.): XLPE / 3.2 
Shield Coverage: 98% 
Capacity Maximum: 83 nF/Km. 
Conductor Resistance: 16 Ohm/Km. 
Shield Resistance: 12 Ohm/Km.
Price: 1400€ for 1 meter stereo
Glory, have you hear it yet?